June Edition
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Lou Woodruff, Test Security Director, Caveon
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Finding Fairness
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Lou Woodruff reflects on the current prevalence of cheating on tests, the widespread use of "unfairness" as a justification for unethical behavior, and the responsibility of the testing industry to implement a measured response to this important issue.
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Those of us who work in the testing field have assumed important responsibilities for developing and administering tests that are accurate and effective, with results that are valid and reliable. As stakeholders in testing, we strive for fairness in our testing programs and the services we provide. We make valiant efforts to ensure fairness through carefully identifying the correct test content and setting informed difficulty levels. We perform item functioning analysis to measure test question performance and evaluate the impact of sub-group variances. We seek to ensure validity across test forms, track reliability over time, and provide environments conducive to testing. In the name of fairness, we as testing stakeholders try to do the right thing.

It does not seem fair then, that so many examinees cheat, steal, and sell test questions, and even impersonate each other. It does not seem fair that some examinees try to thwart every safeguard we put in place to protect the validity of their test results. And it’s not fair that we need to invest so much money and so many resources in responding to the threat of cheating. It just doesn’t seem fair. On the other side of the fence are those who are convinced that our tests are not fair. That judgement often has nothing to do with validity or reliability. Some consider the tests to be unfair because we don’t have the right to evaluate them as people. Some may feel that the school is an unfair hurdle to be navigated, leaving them unprepared for the unfair tests they are forced to take. Some may feel that unidentified authorities are arbitrarily setting unfair blocks to their future. And most egregiously, some may feel that the people making the tests don’t know them and their unfair tests can’t know them either. It’s just not fair. All of which translates into “we have the right to cheat”.

In surveys, nearly 70% of college students admit to cheating in college, while 95% of them admit to having cheated in high school. There are websites teaching examinees how to cheat. There is an electronic market place of cheating devices available online. Cheating has become for some, their right in the face of an evil, unseen and unfair authority. In some settings, successful cheating is actually a social honor bearing deserved rewards.
In a recent New York Times article, students surveyed said that they would not turn in a classmate seen cheating. The rationales included: not my business, could just be having a bad day, they’ll pay down the road (bad karma), who am I to judge, and who knows, I could be in that same situation in the future.  How did we get here? And where is “here” anyway? As a nation, over the past four decades, we have become increasingly polarized by political affiliation, religion, morals, wealth, race, and ethnicity. Some groups feel increasingly justified in moving the needle on truth to a position better supporting their view. If the existing truth does not serve their mission, an alternate truth can be adopted in its place. Honesty has become devalued, authority has become suspect, and unfairness has become the justification for all forms of cheating. For centuries, philosophers have debated whether truth is absolute or relative. Today, however, they would be required to also consider a third possibility, that truth may be relative to the point of being transient.   With the shifting nature of truth, it may become more difficult to find a concept of fairness upon which testing stakeholders and the self-perceived victims of testing can agree. It’s not that there is no fairness; it’s just that the view of fairness is so different for so many, that a shared concept may be unattainable.
"As conscientious stakeholders in the testing field, we need to be measured and comprehensive in our response. We must avoid the tendency to slide to either extreme of the ostrich-chicken continuum."
Where does that leave us as testing stakeholders? Clearly, there will be increasing dishonesty in test taking as the new transience of truth continues to support self-serving views of unfairness.  As conscientious stakeholders in the testing field, we need to be measured and comprehensive in our response. We must avoid the tendency to slide to either extreme of the ostrich-chicken continuum. As the ostrich does, we should not hide from the cheating threat through denial, nor as chicken little did, fret a falling sky. We need to accept the reality of cheating in order to take informed and effective steps in protecting our assessments from it.  Just as we would not surf the web without the protection of security software, we should not develop and deliver assessments without the full range of test security protections in place. We are fortunate to have available an array of effective test security resources to protect our investments, prevent most cheating, and support effective responses when it happens.  Investing in a comprehensive test security solution will require commitment and ongoing dedicated resources. But, considering the important responsibilities we have accepted as testing stakeholders, that seems only fair.